13:31
TEDGlobal 2017

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Why Africa must become a center of knowledge again

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How can Africa, the home to some of the largest bodies of water in the world, be said to have a water crisis? It doesn't, says Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò -- it has a knowledge crisis. Táíwò suggests that lack of knowledge on important topics like water and food is what stands between Africa's current state and a future of prosperity. In a powerful talk, he calls for Africa to make the production of knowledge within the continent rewarding and reclaim its position as a locus of learning on behalf of humanity.

- Historian, philosopher
Drawing on a rich cultural and personal history, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò studies philosophy of law, social and political philosophy, Marxism, and African and Africana philosophy. Full bio

What stands between Africa's current
prostrate condition
00:13
and a future of prosperity and abundance
for its long-suffering populations?
00:17
One word:
00:22
knowledge.
00:24
If Africa is to become a continent
that offers the best life for humans,
00:26
it must become a knowledge society
00:31
immediately.
00:34
This is what I have called
"Africa's knowledge imperative."
00:35
Our universities must reduce emphasis
on producing manpower
00:41
for running our civil society,
00:45
our economy
00:48
and our political institutions.
00:50
They should be dedicated mainly
to knowledge production.
00:53
What sense is there
in producing civil engineers
00:58
who are not supported
by soil scientists and geologists,
01:02
who make it their business
to create knowledge about our soil
01:05
and our rocks?
01:10
What use is there in producing lawyers
01:12
without juries who produce knowledge
01:15
of the underlying philosophical
foundations of the legal system?
01:20
We must seek knowledge.
01:25
We must approach the matter of knowledge
01:28
with a maniacal commitment,
01:31
without let or hindrance.
01:34
Though we must seek knowledge
to solve problems we know of,
01:37
we must also seek knowledge
01:41
when there is no problem in view --
01:44
especially when there
is no problem in view.
01:46
We must seek to know as much
of what there is to know of all things,
01:51
limited only by the insufficiency
of our human nature,
01:56
and not only when the need arises.
02:00
Those who do not seek knowledge
when it is not needed
02:04
will not have it when they must have it.
02:09
The biggest crisis in Africa today
is the crisis of knowledge:
02:14
how to produce it,
02:18
how to manage it,
02:20
and how to deploy it effectively.
02:22
For instance, Africa does not
have a water crisis.
02:26
It has a knowledge crisis
regarding its water,
02:31
where and what types it is,
02:35
how it can be tapped and made available
where and when needed to all and sundry.
02:37
How does a continent that is home
02:45
to some of the largest
bodies of water in the world --
02:47
the Nile,
02:51
the Niger,
02:53
the Congo,
02:55
the Zambezi
02:56
and the Orange Rivers --
02:58
be said to have a water crisis,
03:00
including in countries
03:03
where those rivers are?
03:05
And that is only surface water.
03:08
While we wrongly dissipate our energies
fighting the wrong crises,
03:11
all those who invest in knowledge about us
03:15
are busy figuring out
how to pipe water from Libya's aquifers
03:17
to quench Europe's thirst.
03:23
Such is our knowledge
of our water resources
03:26
that many of our countries have given up
03:29
on making potable water a routine presence
03:31
in the lives of Africans,
03:34
rich or poor,
03:35
high and low,
03:37
rural and urban.
03:39
We eagerly accept
what the merchants of misery
03:41
and the global African Studies
safari professoriat
03:44
and their aid-addled,
03:48
autonomy-fearing African minions
03:50
in government, universities
and civil society
03:53
tell us regarding how nature
has been to stinting towards Africa
03:56
when it comes to the distribution
of water resources in the world.
04:00
We are content to run our cities
and rural dwellings alike
04:04
on boreholes.
04:08
How does one run metropolises
on boreholes and wells?
04:12
Does Africa have a food crisis?
04:19
Again, the answer is no.
04:21
It is yet another knowledge crisis
regarding Africa's agricultural resources,
04:25
what and where they are,
04:30
and how they can be best managed
to make Africans live more lives
04:32
that are worth living.
04:37
Otherwise, how does one explain the fact
04:39
that geography puts the source
of the River Nile in Ethiopia,
04:42
and its people cannot
have water for their lives?
04:46
And the same geography
puts California in the desert,
04:50
but it is a breadbasket.
04:54
The difference, obviously,
is not geography.
04:57
It is knowledge.
05:01
Colorado's aquifers
05:03
grow California's pistachios.
05:05
Why can't Libya's aquifers
05:08
grow sorghum in northern Nigeria?
05:11
Why does Nigeria not aspire
05:14
to feed the world,
05:17
not just itself?
05:19
If Africa's land is so poor,
as we are often told,
05:21
why are outsiders,
05:25
from the United Arab Emirates
all the way to South Korea,
05:27
buying up vast acreages of our land,
05:32
to grow food, no less,
05:35
to feed their people
05:37
in lands that are truly more
geographically stinting?
05:39
The new landowners are not planning
to import new topsoil
05:43
to make their African
acquisitions more arable.
05:47
Again, a singular instance
of knowledge deficiency.
05:50
In the 19th century,
05:56
our predecessors,
05:59
just years removed from the ravages
of slavery and the slave trade,
06:00
were exploring the Niger and Congo Rivers
06:05
with a view to turning Africa's resources
to the advantage of its people
06:09
and to the rest of humanity,
06:13
and their 20th-century successors
were dreaming of harnessing
06:15
the powers of the River Congo
06:19
to light up the whole continent.
06:21
Now only buccaneer capitalists from Europe
06:24
are scheming of doing the same,
06:28
but for exports to Europe
and South Africa.
06:30
And they are even suggesting
06:34
that Congolese may not
benefit from this scheme,
06:36
because, according to them,
Congolese communities are too small
06:39
to make providing them with electricity
06:43
a viable concern.
06:46
The solution?
06:50
Africa must become a knowledge society,
06:51
a defining characteristic
of the modern age.
06:54
We neither are, nor are we
on the path to becoming,
06:58
a knowledge society.
07:04
Things have not always been this way
07:07
when it comes to knowledge
production and Africa.
07:10
In antiquity, the world went to Africa
for intellectual enrichment.
07:13
There were celebrated centers of learning,
07:19
attracting questers from all parts
of the then-known world,
07:22
seeking knowledge about that world.
07:26
What happened then
has implications for our present.
07:29
For example,
07:33
how Roman Africa managed the relationship
between settlers and natives
07:35
between the second and fourth
centuries of our era
07:42
might have something to teach us
when it comes to confronting
07:46
not-too-dissimilar problems
at the present time.
07:49
But how many classics departments
do we have in our universities?
07:53
Because we do not invest in knowledge,
07:58
people come to Africa now
08:00
not as a place of intellectual enrichment,
08:03
but as a place where they sate
their thirst for exotica.
08:06
Yet for the last half-millennium,
08:12
Africa has been hemorrhaging
and exporting knowledge
08:15
to the rest of the world.
08:19
Regardless of the popular description
of it as a trade in bodies,
08:21
the European trans-Atlantic
slave trade and slavery
08:25
was one of the most radical
and longest programs
08:29
of African brains export in history.
08:33
American slave owners may have pretended
that Africans were mere brutes,
08:36
beasts of burden,
08:41
almost as inert and dumb
as other farm implements
08:43
they classified them with
in their ledgers.
08:47
And that's what they did.
08:51
The enslaved Africans, on the other hand,
08:53
knew their were embodiments of knowledge.
08:55
They were smiths, they were poets,
08:58
they were political counselors,
they were princes and princesses,
09:01
they were mythologists,
they were herbologists,
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they were chefs.
09:09
The list is endless.
09:11
They, to take a single example,
09:13
brought the knowledge of rice cultivation
09:15
to the American South.
09:18
They created some of the most
original civilizational elements
09:22
for which the United States
is now celebrated.
09:26
They deployed their knowledge,
for the most part,
09:30
without compensation.
09:33
For the last half-millennium,
beginning with the slave trade,
09:35
Africa has been exporting brains
09:39
while simultaneously breaking
the chains of knowledge translation
09:42
on the continent itself,
09:46
with dire consequences for the systems
of knowledge production in Africa.
09:48
Successive generations are cut off
from the intellectual production
09:53
of their predecessors.
09:58
We keep producing for external markets
10:00
while beggaring our own internal needs.
10:03
At present,
10:07
much of the best knowledge about Africa
10:08
is neither produced nor housed there,
10:11
even when it is produced by Africans.
10:14
Because we are dominated
by immediate needs
10:18
and relevant solutions when it comes
to what we should know,
10:21
we are happy to hand over to others
10:24
the responsibility to produce knowledge,
10:27
including knowledge about, of and for us,
10:29
and to do so far away from us.
10:33
We are ever eager to consume knowledge
10:36
and have but a mere portion of it
10:40
without any anxiety about
ownership and location.
10:42
African universities
are now all too content
10:47
to have e-connections
with libraries elsewhere,
10:51
having given up ambitions
on building libraries
10:54
to which the world would come
for intellectual edification.
10:57
Control over who decides
what should be stocked on our shelves
11:02
and how access to collections
should be determined
11:06
are made to rest on our trust
in our partners' good faith
11:10
that they will not abandon us
down the road.
11:14
This must change.
11:17
Africa must become
a place of knowledge again.
11:21
Knowledge production
actually expands the economy.
11:25
Take archaeological digs, for instance,
11:31
and their impact on tourism.
11:34
Our desires to unearth our antiquity,
11:37
especially those remote times
of which we have no written records,
11:40
requires investment in archaeology
and related disciplines,
11:45
e.g., paleoanthropology.
11:50
Yet, although it is our past
we seek to know,
11:53
by sheer serendipity,
11:57
archaeology may shed light
on the global human experience
11:59
and yield economic payoffs
12:03
that were no part
of the original reasons for digging.
12:06
We must find a way to make knowledge
and its production sexy and rewarding;
12:10
rewarding, not in the crass
sense of moneymaking
12:17
but in terms of making it worthwhile
to indulge in the pursuit of knowledge,
12:21
support the existence
12:27
of knowledge-producing
groups and intellectuals,
12:28
ensuring that the continent
12:31
becomes the immediate locus
of knowledge production,
12:35
distribution and consumption,
12:38
and that instead of having
its depositories
12:41
beyond Africa's boundaries,
12:43
people once more come
from the rest of the world,
12:45
even if in virtual space,
to learn from us.
12:49
All this we do as custodians
on behalf of common humanity.
12:54
Creating a knowledge society in Africa,
13:02
for me, would be one way to celebrate
and simultaneously enhance diversity
13:05
by infinitely enriching it with material
and additional artifacts --
13:11
artifacts that we furnish
13:16
by our strivings
13:19
in the knowledge field.
13:21
Thank you very much.
13:23
(Applause)
13:24

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About the Speaker:

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò - Historian, philosopher
Drawing on a rich cultural and personal history, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò studies philosophy of law, social and political philosophy, Marxism, and African and Africana philosophy.

Why you should listen

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is professor of African political thought at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in the US. As he writes: "I was born in Nigeria. I lived there all my life save for the five unbroken years that I sojourned in Canada in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece. By itself, my living in Nigeria does not warrant comment. But the discovery that I speak of put that life in a completely different light; hence these remarks. All my life in Nigeria, I lived as a Yorùbá, a Nigerian, an African, and a human being. I occupied, by turns, several different roles. I was a hugely successful Boy Scout. I was a well-read African cultural nationalist. I was a member of the Nigerian province of the worldwide communion of the Church of England who remains completely enamored of the well-crafted sermon and of church music, often given to impromptu chanting from memory of whole psalms, the Te Deum or the Nunc Dimittis. I was a student leader of national repute. I was an aspiring revolutionary who once entertained visions of life as a guerilla in the bush. I was a frustrated journalist who, to his eternal regret, could not resist the call of the teaching profession. I was an ardent football player of limited talent. I was a budding spiritualist who has since stopped professing faith. Overall, I always believed that I was put on Earth for the twin purposes of raising hell for and catching it from those who would dare shame humanity through either ignorance or injustice or poverty."

Táíwò is the author of Legal Naturalism: A Marxist Theory of Law (1996/2015), How Colonialism Preempted Modernity in Africa (2010) and Africa Must Be Modern: A Manifesto (2012/2014).

More profile about the speaker
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò | Speaker | TED.com